Where’s The Servant Leadership?


SEI has touted servant leadership as the organizational mantra for the past nine years. In the 1970s, Robert Greenleaf coined the term in his published essay “The Servant As Leader.” Since Greenleaf’s work was published, the topic of servant leadership has grown in popularity as a method for teaching management in the workplace. The basic premise of servant leadership is that the leader acts as humble servant, shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

When SEI first announced it was changing its corporate culture to one that embraces the servant leadership philosophy, it said the power pyramid would be flipped and the customer would be the point of focus. Everyone in the company—from the executives down to the field consultants—would work to support franchisees and their employees so they could better serve our customers. Is this the culture 7-Eleven storeowners see when they look to SEI?

Franchisees are still waiting to reap the benefits of this management style. Many believe nothing has changed at corporate, certainly nothing even remotely resembling servant leadership. In fact, one has to wonder how the franchisee’s independent contractor status can manifest itself in the present culture within SEI, where many corporate folks seem to believe franchisees are there to serve SEI and its every whim. How many times have mistakes been made by SEI at the expense of franchisees, often in the form of increased or lost labor hours? A recent example is the beer price change and confectionery price change on the same day. The confectionery price change was not even communicated in advance, and franchisees learned of it when our employees saw the two blue bars on the POS register. No time to plan how to print the hundreds of shelf tags, but it had to done any way possible.

SEI seems to view franchisees as a commodity and not as business partners. Franchisees are fed up with the heavy-handed tactics used by some in SEI and are beginning to say, “I am mad as hell and I am not going to take this anymore!” (Peter Finch in the movie “Network.”) More than a dozen lawsuits have been filed by franchisees individually and collectively in order to stop the company from further working against our interests as independent business owners. Our CEO recently held a roundtable meeting with a group of hand-selected franchisees to learn about franchisee unrest, and claimed to be ignorant of the goings on within his organization. Whether change is forthcoming will be seen. The one thing that is clear is that franchisee morale is at its lowest point in almost twenty years.

It is time for all franchisees to stand together and hold SEI accountable. Our Quality Visits need to be about more than checking that week’s boxes to kowtow to SEI’s ever-changing demands. It is time to demand that SEI live up to its promises, like holding vendors accountable for out-of-stock items and not the franchisees. It is time SEI understands that the RIS BT system is not the be-all, end-all. There are too many great franchisees unable to meet their customers’ needs because of the constraints of “the system.”

Many franchisees already embody the servant leadership model. They know that it’s about more than providing a paycheck to an employee. They understand that it is about creating a nurturing relationship to truly develop an employee to their full potential by not only mentoring them, but listening and understanding their personal needs, wants and desires. Maybe SEI could learn something from its franchisees about servant leadership.